Just as the COVID-19 pandemic began, the city of Mountain Iron sought $3.8 million to build a new warehouse and office space to accommodate the expansion of Heliene, Inc., a Canadian solar panel manufacturer that occupies a city-owned facility.

That never happened, as 2020 had other plans.

But during that time the needs of Heliene grew.

What began as a plan for a storage facility and office expansion evolved into an entirely new production line.

On Thursday, politicians and company officials held a groundbreaking ceremony for a new 68,000 square-foot facility next to the existing 25,000 square-foot facility in a business park north of U.S. Highway 169.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Like the existing facility, the building will be owned by the city of Mountain Iron and leased to Heliene. It will be built using up to $12 million in state loans and grants — two $2.75 non-recourse loans from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, a $1 million grant from St. Louis County and a $5.5 million grant from the Minnesota Renewable Development Account.

Heliene will invest $11 million in the production line itself, according to CEO Martin Pochtaruk.

He said the expansion in Mountain Iron wouldn't be possible without the amount of public loans and grants.

Heliene employee Corey Davis of Gilbert uses a flashlight to inspect a solar panel at Heliene on Sept. 9, 2021, in Mountain Iron. 
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Heliene employee Corey Davis of Gilbert uses a flashlight to inspect a solar panel at Heliene on Sept. 9, 2021, in Mountain Iron. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"That is one of the things that attracted us to Mountain Iron in the very beginning. … There is a lot of competition around the country," Pochtaruk said in an interview with the News Tribune this week.

Ahead of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation's advisory board's unanimous approval of the project's loan Wednesday, Craig Wainio, Mountain Iron city administrator and executive director of the Mountain Iron Economic Development Authority, said getting the solar industry up and running in the city has been a yearslong effort. He referred to Silicon Energy, which had manufactured solar panels in the facility before closing in 2017. Heliene then took over the facility.

"We've worked hard to diversify the area up here with the agency's help to get some different types of industries," Wainio said. "We're lucky enough to get Martin (Pochtaruk) up here."

Expected to open in June 2022, the new facility will produce 400 megawatts per year of large solar panels for solar farm and commercial uses while the smaller, existing facility — in need of a refurbishment — can produce smaller panels for residential needs.

Employees of Heliene listen to speakers talk about a manufacturing expansion that will cost over $20 million on Sept. 9, 2021, in Mountain Iron. Heliene is a manufacturer of solar panels.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Employees of Heliene listen to speakers talk about a manufacturing expansion that will cost over $20 million on Sept. 9, 2021, in Mountain Iron. Heliene is a manufacturer of solar panels. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

A new panel comes off the line every 90 seconds, or a little less, at the existing facility. A new panel will come off the line in less than 30 seconds at the new facility.

The expansion comes at a time when solar energy has been in high demand, as utilities, companies and individuals work to decarbonize the production of electricity in the face of climate change.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration's Department of Energy released a report that says 40% of the nation's electricity could come from solar by 2035.

“The study illuminates the fact that solar, our cheapest and fastest-growing source of clean energy, could produce enough electricity to power all of the homes in the U.S. by 2035 and employ as many as 1.5 million people in the process,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in the report.

Heliene CEO Martin Pochtaruk listens as State Sen. David Tomassoni speaks at Heliene on Sept. 9, 2021, in Mountain Iron. Heliene, a manufacturer of solar panels, is adding a manufacturing facility named after Tomassoni. The new facility is expected to cost over $20 million.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Heliene CEO Martin Pochtaruk listens as State Sen. David Tomassoni speaks at Heliene on Sept. 9, 2021, in Mountain Iron. Heliene, a manufacturer of solar panels, is adding a manufacturing facility named after Tomassoni. The new facility is expected to cost over $20 million. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

60 new jobs

When the new facility is complete, it is expected to create 60 new jobs, nearly doubling the plant's existing workforce. Since it opened, the facility has employed an average of 66 people.

Wages are expected to be between $31,000 and $75,000 per year, according to the IRRR.

But will Heliene have trouble filling those 60 new positions?

"Yes," Pochtaruk said. "That's a very sad 'yes.'"

It's already been difficult the last few years to find people to fill positions on the manufacturing line willing to show up to work on time, Pochtaruk said.

And then there are the engineering jobs requiring specialized education.

"With this 21st-century type of manufacturing, it's not easy to find talent," Pochtaruk said.

That's exacerbated by a high number of job vacancies throughout the state and nation, with many employers unable to fill positions, meaning Heliene will be competing against other businesses for the same workforce.

"It will all depend on availability and salaries," Pochtaruk said.

State Sen. David Tomassoni speaks at Heliene, a manufacturer of solar panels, on Sept. 9, 2021, in Mountain Iron. 
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
State Sen. David Tomassoni speaks at Heliene, a manufacturer of solar panels, on Sept. 9, 2021, in Mountain Iron. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

State Sen. David Tomassoni, I-Chisholm, said he was particularly grateful for the company hiring "second-chance workers and making productive citizens out of people who were previously in prison."

"I think everything about it — becoming a big part of the new-age energy economy, creating new jobs, providing opportunities for people who didn't have opportunities before — just speaks to the greater good that this whole thing is all about," Tomassoni said.

Employees carry out a large banner naming the new manufacturing facility after State Sen. David Tomassoni at Heliene on Sept. 9, 2021, in Mountain Iron. 
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Employees carry out a large banner naming the new manufacturing facility after State Sen. David Tomassoni at Heliene on Sept. 9, 2021, in Mountain Iron. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Facility named after Tomassoni

In a speech ahead of the groundbreaking, Pochtaruk became emotional when announcing the name of the new facility: the Senator David J. Tomassoni Solar Manufacturing Facility.

The name honors "the tremendous legacy you have created in Minnesota and, in particular, the Iron Range," Pochtaruk said, holding back tears. He then embraced Tomassoni.

After the ceremony, Tomassoni — who was recently diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as 'Lou Gehrig's disease' — described the honor as "overwhelming."

"I'm completely honored by it because there were 10 people in the crowd today they could have named it after," Tomassoni said. "The fact that they chose me — I'm just very, very humbled and honored by it."

This story was updated at 3:40 p.m. Sept. 9, 2021 with additional information and quotes from the groundbreaking ceremony. It was originally posted at 9:10 a.m. Sept. 9, 2021.